By Arturo S. Rodríguez
If a motorist killed a person while driving drunk, would a police officer stop him and say, "You're free to go, but next time you are going to jail?"
As ludicrous as it sounds, that's what is happening in California fields when a farm worker's life is lost due to an employer's refusal to comply with the current state's heat laws.
Fortunately, California legislators last month took a step towards giving farm workers the tools they need to protect themselves from scorching temperatures while laboring in the fields picking the fruits and vegetables that feed our nation.
We are asking Gov. Jerry Brown to sign these bills into law allowing the prosecution of employers whose intentional neglect put farm workers lives at risk by repeatedly refusing to provide them with adequate water and shade despite the dangerous heat temperatures they work in.
Lawmakers approved AB 2676 which would make it a misdemeanor crime -- punishable by jail time and fines -- to not provide appropriate water or shade to workers laboring under high heat conditions. "The Humane Treatment for Farm Workers Act" -- authored by Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Whittier) -- will require agricultural employers to treat farm workers at least as well as animals.
If not, they must face the same criminal penalties as exist in current law for the inhumane treatment of animals. Currently under the law, a person who does not provide water to an animal, could face criminal prosecution.
Our other bill, AB 2346 by Assemblywoman Betsy Butler (D-Marina del Rey), known as "The Farm Worker Safety Act of 2012", will allow farm workers to sue employers who repeatedly fail to comply with mandatory requirements for shade and drinking water as spelled out under the state's labor law.
The measure would also make growers and the farm labor contractors they hire jointly liable if contractors fail to supply farm workers with shade and water when temperatures soar. These two lifesaving UFW-backed initiatives would accomplish what the state has failed to do -- protect workers from severe injury or death resulting from heat illness.
Last year, a Stockton judge accepted a plea deal allowing two defendants to avoid jail time in the 2008 heat death of 17-year-old farm worker Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez. On May 14, 2008, Maria Isabel collapsed after working in the blazing sun for nine hours without access to water or shade at a Farmington-area vineyard. The defendants were sentenced to probation, community service and fines of $370 and $1,000 each.
Since California issued regulations in 2005 to keep farm workers from dying of extreme heat, at least 16 farm workers have died due to heat related issues. In addition, state regulators are investigating two possible heat-related farm worker deaths that occurred this summer.
In most of the cases where a farm worker has died, the employer was found to have repeatedly deprived farm workers from adequate water and shade in violation of state regulations. It is obvious that these bad employers prey on the state's inability to enforce the law.
In August 2012, The Associated Press reported that last year only 1,090 heat inspections were conducted in California. The state has an estimated 81,500 farms.
These two bills now sit on Gov. Brown's desk awaiting his signature. The Governor has until Sept. 30 to take action on these vital bills. Help us tell the Governor to make these lifesaving bills California law by taking action at: http://action.ufw.org/heatsafety.
Farm workers need and deserve this basic protection.
Arturo S. Rodríguez is President of the United Farm Workers